Reminder: Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on March 7, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve got a very busy week in front of me as we head towards the St Patrick’s Week Study Break so I thought I’d take the time to remind you all while I remember that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, the deadline for which is a week from today. You can find the details here.

The position is for 10 months, starting in September 2021, and is to provide teaching cover for Professor Jiri Vala who will be on sabbatical next year. He originally intended to take his sabbatical this academic year, starting in September 2020, hence the previous advertisement of this post, but it was postponed for reasons of Covid-19 and the previous position was not filled.

I know it is a relatively short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic, perhaps someone straight out of a PhD, to gain some teaching experience.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday March 14th, i.e. about 4 weeks away, and you should apply through the jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please feel free to pass this on to anyone who may be interested!

Elsevier? Just say No!

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on March 6, 2021 by telescoper

I found out via Twitter that UK Universities are now negotiating again with publishing giant Elsevier for access to its range of hideously overpriced journals.

Five years ago the result of similar negotiations was a clear victory for Elsevier and UK institutions have been paying ever since. This time there’s a strong feeling in the UK academic community that the negotiators have to take a much firmer line, even if that means losing access to Elsevier journals.

See, e.g., this thread from mathematician Tim Gowers (who runs a very successful arXiv overlay journal called Discrete Analysis along similar lines to the Open Journal of Astrophysics).

and this from Computational Neuroscientist Stephen Eglen:

It is important to take a stand on this issue if you want the negotiations to succeed in reducing the burden on University budgets caused by profiteering publishers like Elsevier. If you’re on Twitter you can do so using the hashtag #NoElsevier. Alternatively you can make it clear to your institution’s library that you’re prepared to do without Elsevier journals unless they reduce the price substantially.

I’d add a more general comment. If you’re an academic who thinks academia needs the likes of Elsevier then you’re an academic who is not thinking. There are plenty of ways of communicating your results without shaking hands with the Devil. I find it completely mystifying why so many academics and their institutions are so willing to be fleeced in the academic journal racket. Perhaps they believe they don’t understand how little it actually costs to publish articles online?

You could do a lot worse than seize this opportunity to set up your own journal. It’s really quite straightforward and inexpensive, especially if your research community uses the arXiv. Why not try setting up your own overlay journal?

Beard of Ireland 2021 poll sees competition bristling

Posted in Beards, Biographical on March 5, 2021 by telescoper

And so it begins….

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

Press release 5th March

Contact Keith Flett 07803 167266


The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that competition for the Irish Beard of the Year 2021 is officially open

The 2017 winner was politician Colum Eastwood who bearded broadcaster William Crawley for the annual Award.

In 2018 the DUP’s Lee Reynolds shaved writer Dominic O’Reilly for the honour with Colum Eastwood in a steady third place.

In 2019 Lee Reynolds retained the title

The 2020 winner was Maynooth academic Peter Coles

The BLF says that while traditionally a land of predominantly clean-shaven cultures, Ireland has in recent times become something of a centre for stylish and trendy beards.

Contenders for the title in 2021 include a diverse range of the hirsute- a golfer, political activists, journalists, an academic as well as the two Health…

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Seachtain na Gaeilge

Posted in Biographical with tags , on March 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursdays are very busy days for me this Semester not least because I have to squeeze in my Irish language class at lunchtime in between lectures meetings and an afternoon computational physics lab.

Although learning a new language is challenging I am enjoying it very much and slowly getting the hang of it. I find the pronunciation rather difficult. Today we encountered the difference between the broad “c” and the slender “c” which I found indistinguishable at first hearing, but figured it out well enough to get all the questions correct on the listening test. It’s basically a slight difference in the position of the back of your tongue against the palate.

Another thing in Irish that takes some getting used to is that many words contain a string of vowels, not all of which are pronounced. At least part of the reason for that is that vowels next to consonants are often only there in order to tell you how to pronounce the consonant rather than being voiced themselves.

In today’s class we also learned how to ask such questions as Cé as tú? (which means “where are you from?”) and during the course of that we learned the Irish form of some names of countries. Interestingly some countries, such as France (An Fhrainc), have an article in front whereas others, such as England (Sasana) do not. I also learned that the Irish word for Wales is An Bhreatain Bheag which translates literally as “Little Britain”. I’m not sure the Welsh will be best pleased to learn that…

Anyway, from now until St Patrick’s Day is Seachtain na Gaeilge an annual festival of the Irish language and culture during which we are all encouraged to use our Irish language skills, however limited.

Here is the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins introducing this year’s Seachtain na Gaeilge.

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R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021)

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

I just saw the news that British trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber passed away yesterday at the age of 90. Chris Barber was one of the leading lights of the traditional jazz boom of the 1950s and 60s, during which he led a very fine band including trumpeter Pat Halcox and clarinetist Monty Sunshine among others.

I was fortunate to meet Chris Barber on a couple of occasions at Jazz festivals and he struck me as a really nice man as well as an excellent musician: very friendly and cooperative even with a young student wanting to do an interview for a college magazine. An interesting factoid about him is that he was a very fluent speaker of German and his band toured Germany frequently, even performing in East Berlin in 1965; you can see a recording of that concert here.

I was trying to think of a track to put up as tribute and decided on this one because it allows me to answer a question I asked on this blog a couple of years ago. When I was at school I used to listen to Sounds of Jazz a BBC2 Radio 2 programme presented on Sunday evenings by Peter Clayton. I always used to switch over from John Peel when Sounds of Jazz started and would always listen all the way through. It always ended with this track, a lovely version of an old blues tune called Snag It which I think was written by King Oliver.

R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021).

Hawking and the Mind of God

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

There’s a new book out about Stephen Hawking which has triggered a certain amount of reaction (see, e.g., here) so I thought I’d mention a book I wrote, largely in response to the pseudo-religious nature of some of Hawking’s later writings.

I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the “cult” that surrounds Stephen Hawking. I think a number of my colleagues have found some of my comments disrespectful and/or churlish. I do nevertheless stand by everything I’ve said. I have enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and fortitude, and have never said otherwise. I don’t, however, agree that Hawking is in the same category of revolutionary thinkers as Newton or Einstein, which is how he is often portrayed.

In fact a poll of 100 theoretical physicists in 1999 came to exactly the same conclusion. The top ten in that list were:

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. James Clerk Maxwell
  4. Niels Bohr
  5. Werner Heisenberg
  6. Galileo Galilei
  7. Richard Feynman
  8. Paul Dirac
  9. Erwin Schrödinger
  10. Ernest Rutherford

The idea of a league table like this is of course a bit silly, but it does at least give some insight into the way physicists regard prominent figures in their subject. Hawking came way down the list, in fact, in 300th (equal) place. I don’t think it is disrespectful to Hawking to point this out. I’m not saying he isn’t a brilliant physicist. I’m just saying that there are a great many other brilliant physicists that no one outside physics has ever heard of.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the list had been restricted to living physicists. I’d guess Hawking would be in the top ten, but I’m not at all sure where…

And before I get accused of jealousy about Stephen Hawking’s fame, let me make it absolutely clear that if Hawking was like a top Premiership footballer (which I think is an appropriate analogy), then I am definitely like someone kicking a ball around for a pub team on a Sunday morning (with a hangover). This gulf does not make me envious; it just makes me admire his ability all the more, just as trying to play football makes one realise exactly how good the top players really are.

I am not myself religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never – explain, such as why there is something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way, if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

Anyway, this is the book I wrote:.

And here is the jacket blurb:

Stephen Hawking has achieved a unique position in contemporary culture, combining eminence in the rarefied world of theoretical physics with the popular fame usually reserved for film stars and rock musicians. Yet Hawking’s technical work is so challenging, both in its conceptual scope and in its mathematical detail, that proper understanding of its significance lies beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists. How, then, did Hawking-the-scientist become Hawking-the-icon? Hawking’s theories often take him into the intellectual territory that has traditionally been the province of religion rather than science. He acknowledges this explicitly in the closing sentence of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time , where he says that his ultimate aim is to know the Mind of God . Hawking and the Mind of God examines the pseudo-religious connotations of some of the key themes in Hawking’s work, and how these shed light not only on the Hawking cult itself, but also on the wider issue of how scientists represent themselves in the media.

I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention because my book is long out of print so you can’t buy it unless you get a copy second-hand…

Postgraduate Programmes in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 2, 2021 by telescoper

We have a (virtual) Postgraduate Open Day coming up on Tuesday 9th March at Maynooth University (for which you can register here). To go with that here is a short video of our new Postgraduate Coordinator Dr John Regan answering some frequently asked questions about the programmes we offer in the Department of Theoretical Physics:

If you have any other questions then you can register for the Open Day where we will have staff on hand to answer them in a live Q&A session.

You could also follow the Department’s Twitter feed here:

The Joy of Rollmops

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on March 2, 2021 by telescoper

The other day I had a bit of a craving for pickled herring which, in the form of rollmops, is something I’ve liked since I was a kid but rediscovered on a trip to Denmark many years ago where sild on lovely rugbrød with a peberrod sauce became one of my favourite light meals. Pickled herring doesn’t seem to be so popular in Ireland but fortunately it is popular with folk from countries around the Baltic Sea, including Poland, and in Maynooth there is a very nice little Polish mini-market where I found a wide variety of pickled herrings with different kinds of marinade.

In the course of this discovered what the Polish word for rollmops is:

For some reason I had always assumed that “rollmops” was an English word but in fact it is of German origin and Rollmops is actually singular (the plural is Rollmöpse).

In the shop I also bought some rye bread and horseradish to go with the fish. In fact the little shop is full of lovely produce and, although yesterday was the first time I’ve been inside, I’m sure to be a regular visitor in future.

I know some people don’t like pickled herring at all but I love it. In fact I think it’s tanginess makes it an ideal starter and I’ve often served it as such when I’ve had guests for dinner. The bonus is you don’t need to cook it!

A Poem for St David’s Day

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s St David’s Day today, and a lovely spring morning it is too, so I wish you all a big

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

The daffodils in my garden have come out in celebration, apart from the clump under the tree which are reluctant to emerge:

It has become a bit of a St David’s Day tradition on this this blog to post a piece of verse but instead of the more usual R.S. Thomas I thought I’d carry on with the theme of daffodils with this wonderfully moving poem by Gillian Clarke inspired by Wordsworth’s famous poem and called Miracle on St David’s Day:

‘They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude’

The Daffodils by W. Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.

A Year of Covid-19 in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 28, 2021 by telescoper

Last night I was updating my Covid-19 statistics and plotting new graphs (which I do every day – the results are here) when I noticed that I now have 365 data points. The first officially recorded case of Covid-19 in Ireland was dated 29th February 2020 (although there is evidence of cases in Ireland before that, including one of community transmission). I can’t actually mark the anniversary of that date exactly – for obvious reasons – but it seems a good point to look at what has happened. I didn’t actually start doing a daily update until 22nd March when we were all in the first lockdown but there were relatively few cases in the intervening time and it was possible quite easily to fill in the earlier data.

Little did I know that I would be doing an update every day for a year!

Anyway, here are today’s plots:


On a linear y-axis the cases look like this:


The numbers for deaths on a linear scale look like this:


The recent trend is for a slow decline in new cases, hospitalizations, ICU referrals and testing positivity rates which is all good news. The rate of vaccination- severely limited by supply issues – is starting to increase and from April to June is expected to reach a million a month and then two million a month thereafter. There is therefore some grounds for optimism that a significant fraction of the population will be immunized by the end of the summer, assuming the supply ramps up as expected and there are no more dirty tricks from certain pharmaceutical companies.

Comparing with the situations elsewhere I’d say that Ireland has in broad terms handled the pandemic quite well: worse than some (especially Scandinavian countries) but better than many. It does seem to me that there have been three serious errors:

  1. There has never been – and still isn’t – any sensible plan for imposing quarantine on arrivals into Ireland. A year on one is being put in place but it is simply ridiculous that an island like Ireland failed to do this earlier.
  2. Those lockdown measures that have been imposed have been very weakly enforced, and have often been accompanied by confused messaging from the Government, with the result that a significant minority of people have simply ignored the restrictions. The majority of the population has complied but the others that haven’t have kept the virus in circulation at a high level: the current daily rate of new cases is 650-700, which is far too high, and is declining only slowly.
  3. Finally, and probably the biggest mistake of all, was to relax restriction for the Christmas holiday. The huge spike in infections and deaths in January and February is a direct result of this catastrophic decision for which the Government is entirely culpable.

The situation in the United Kingdom with regard to 3 was even worse:

The excess mortality from January is a direct consequence of Boris Johnson “saving Christmas”. The difference in area under the two curves tells you precisely how many people he killed. I hope politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea are one day held to account for their negligence.

As for myself, I am reasonably optimistic for the future, and not just because Spring appears to have arrived. I have found the Covid-19 restrictions very irksome but I am fortunate to be in a position to cope with them reasonably well, especially now that I have my own house with a garden in a nice quiet neighbourhood.

It has been very hard work doing everything online, and it’s essential to take a break from the screen from time to time, but the upside of that is that by keeping busy you avoid becoming bored and frustrated. One thing that does annoy me though is the number of people who thinking that “working from home” means “not working at all”. I’m sure there are many others, especially in the education sector, who will agree with me!

Although I have coped reasonably well in a personal sense I still very much want to get back to campus to resume face-to-face teaching. I like talking to students and find teaching much more rewarding when there is a response. Moreover, since we’re now going to be off campus until the end of this academic year, that means that a second cohort of students will complete their degrees and graduate this summer without their lecturers being there to congratulate them in person and give them a proper sendoff into the big wide world. I find that very sad.

Anyway, tomorrow we start week 5 of the Semester, which means 4 weeks have passed. That means there are two weeks before the Study Break, the halfway point of teaching term, and we are one-third of the way through the semester. Life goes on.